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State puts design before nursing school approval

By Paul Snyder

There’s a catch to the state’s request for architectural/engineering firms interested in designing a university building: The project has not been approved.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Division of State Facilities is accepting consultant questionnaires through Feb. 9 for preliminary design work on an estimated $37.6 million nursing school for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For projects that don’t involve state money, an uncertain project timeline is nothing new, said David Miller, the UW System’s vice president of capital planning and budget.

“But for state-funded projects, it’s extremely rare,” he said. “Normally, the Legislature doesn’t take the role of approving it if it’s not ready for enumeration.”

Madison/University Nursing Science Center

But when the state’s normal system of approving projects gets upset, changes happen, said state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah.

“There were some politics at play here,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s the way it goes.”

State Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, pushed for the project to be in the state’s 2009-11 budget, but the Legislature, facing spending cuts in the 2009-11 budget and political pressure to remove some construction projects, cut the nursing school from the budget. Robson said the compromise was to let planning continue.

Miller said the UW System Board of Regents will put the full project forward for approval in the state’s 2011-13 budget, but he said there are no guarantees. That means the firm that designs the project this year is working with a targeted cost but an unknown construction start date.

“And that means the A/E firm is doing work based on a budget in 2011 projections,” Miller said. “If the project gets strung out beyond that, they’d have to change plans.”

Trying to plan a $37.6 million building based on 2011 money could be a lot different than trying to a plan a $37.6 million building in 2013’s economy. Miller said if the project gets pushed back to the 2013-15 budget, the UW System might have to ask the state Building Commission or donors for more money for the same building.

In an economy where more design work is done for buildings that are not yet approved, it’s the way planners have to do business now, said Doug Hursh, director of design for Madison-based Potter Lawson Inc.

“The biggest issue we face is cost and how it changes in the future,” he said. “But it only gets really frustrating if they don’t get done.”

Miller said the new nursing school will get done, but he’s not sure when.

Kaufert said there could be some benefit to the advance planning, but he questioned whether it’s fair for other projects.

“The rest of us have to wait for enumeration,” he said. “It’s a tough fight to get projects into the budget.”

With design work ready to roll, Robson said she will focus on getting the project positioned for 2011. If the state declines, she said, the project could lose momentum.

“The longer it gets pushed out, the more trouble we have solving some of these issues,” she said. “I think investors in the project will want to see things moving.”

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